It’s never a fun moment for a startup when Google starts eyeing your space — particularly for a startup that took three full years just to get to launch point.
But that’s the experience that Joseph Kopser and Craig Cummings, founders of RideScout, woke up to a few weeks ago. They spent countless hours of trial and error building a comprehensive platform that they like to call the “Uber of Ubers,” only to have Google cackle maniacally and experiment with a similar model.
Here’s how RideScout works: The app loads a map that shows the user the available transportation nearby and how much each one will cost. That includes public buses and shuttles, Zipcars, Sidecars, Scoot scooters, Flywheel, Parking Panda, Bay Area Bike Share, walking, driving your own car, and other local partners that vary from city to city.
Not surprisingly, Lyft and Uber are noticeably absent from the list. As the market leaders in the marketplace of on-demand transportation, it’s not exactly in their best interest to jump onboard, at least not until Ridescout expands to the point where these companies can’t ignore it.
When users book their trip through RideScout, the company skims a cut from the other entities, one that varies depending on the partner.
As you might imagine, building such an infrastructure took ages. With no prestige to their name, and as Valley outsiders based in Texas, the RideScout founders had to go door-to-door convincing transportation companies to partner with them. Once they had onboarded a few bigger names, the recruitment process came a little easier. It became downright scalable after the startup developed an API where any transportation company could sign themselves up to appear on the app.
The founders were plugging along swimmingly, launching Washington D.C., Boston, and San Francisco in quick succession. They hit their biggest market yet — Chicago — just last week, with plans to launch 40 more cities by the end of summer. It was all going well, until they were hit with the sledgehammer every founder dreads.
Google became their competitor.
In a sense, Google Maps already was RideScout’s competitor, given that it offered driving directions and public transit offerings to users. But then, in early May, Google decided to integrate Uber into its directions. When users opened the map they saw an option “Get an Uber,” with the time it would take them to reach their destination. Clicking the button took users directly into the Uber app.
In other words, Google moved directly into RideScout territory, and managed to one up the startup with a coveted company partnership RideScout couldn’t attain.
“We were like, ‘Whoa,’” Ridescout co-founder Cummings says.
“There is nothing that stops them if they were committed to being the single source marketplace for riders and drivers,” Kopser agrees.
This isn’t a foreign situation and startups with just as many years under their belt as RideScout have been squashed by the likes of Google before. It’s not even the first time a navigation company has been squashed by Google. TomTom, Garmin, and TeleNav all faced a major market hurdle when Google launched Google Maps Navigation for free in 2009.
It’s a rather unfortunate chain of events, given that RideScout was set to aggregate all the aggregators of transportation, bringing all the options into one place much like Expedia or Kayak did for airfare.
Kopser and Cummings claim their anxiety has deflated since that news broke. Perhaps in a bit of self-delusion, they believe that Google will stop at the Uber partnership and not go any farther. “When they partnered with Uber it calmed us down and made us feel better,” Cummings says. “We don’t anticipate that Lyft or Flywheel would come next because they’re Uber’s competitors.”
Although it’s possible Google would choose to stop at Uber — after all, Google Ventures is one of Uber’s biggest investors — it’s unlikely. Google focuses on owning all the eyeballs, and it would be counter to the company’s typical strategy to cut out the chunks of the market not encompassed by Uber customers. I suspect the Uber button is just the beginning of Google’s experiments with expanding its navigation platform.
Until then, however, RideScout has a head start and a focus on regional and provincial offerings that Google will likely never have. As an example, the founders said they’re onboarding all the hyperlocal options in each market they expand to, like once a week shuttles from small college towns into bigger cities.
“Google could beat us. But we’re just hoping to go faster than they are,” Kopser admits.
[Illustration courtesy Alejo Malia]